FAA extends strict policy for unruly air passengers amid mask clashes

File photo of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, July 2, 2020.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
File photo of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

More than 500 cases reported since late December

The Federal Aviation Administration is extending its zero tolerance policy for unruly passengers as hundreds of passengers refuse to comply with mask requirements on flights.

The stricter policy will stay in place as long as the mask order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Transportation Security Administration remains in effect. Airlines began requiring masks last May, and President Joe Biden signed an order in January for a federal mask mandate on airplanes and in airports, along with other forms of transportation.

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FAA administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive, said in a statement the policy directs “strong enforcement action against any passenger who disrupts or threatens the safety of a flight, with penalties ranging from fines to jail time.”

More than 500 unruly passenger cases have been reported to the agency by airlines since late December, with the majority of them involving non-compliance with the mask requirement, according to the FAA. The agency said it has started 20 enforcement actions while reviewing the other cases.

A Delta passenger who boarded a Miami-Atlanta flight in October faced a proposed $27,500 fine last month after allegedly hitting a flight attendant under her left eye, according to the FAA.

The passenger’s traveling companion allegedly refused to wear a mask, secure his tray table and fasten his seat belt, so the plane returned to the gate and both passengers were asked to get off the plane. The passenger accompanying the man who did not want to follow instructions “began yelling expletives at the flight attendant and other passengers, and struck the flight attendant under her left eye,” according to the FAA.

Federal law prohibits interfering with crews, physically assaulting or threatening to physically assault anyone on a plane.

Last week, the FAA proposed a $14,500 penalty against a passenger on a December jetBlue flight from New York to the Dominican Republic who refused to wear a mask and drank alcohol he brought on board, which is prohibited. The flight returned to John F. Kennedy International Airport and landed 4,000 pounds overweight because of the fuel loaded onto the plane for the international flight.

The Associated Press reported that a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Denver this month faced a federal charge after refusing to wear a mask, then standing up and urinating in the cabin.

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